L.A. Clippers: 5 Toughest Challengers in the Western Conference

Errol Krupiarz@@WiseGuyErrolContributor IFebruary 24, 2012

L.A. Clippers: 5 Toughest Challengers in the Western Conference

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    We’ve reached the halfway point in this NBA season, and so far, the L.A. Clippers are where most of us expected them to be—battling the L.A. Lakers atop the Pacific division while Chris Paul and Blake Griffin turn the Staples Center into a high-flying circus act.
     
    Let me tell you that it’s been a lot of fun being at the stadium during home games this year with Griffin and DeAndre Jordan assaulting the rim on a nightly basis.
     
    All those highlights are nice, but at the end of the day this team is going to be judged the same way all the others are—by wins and losses.
     
    The Clippers have clearly established themselves as contenders in the West. They head into the All-Star break with a record of 20-11, which would give them the No. 3 seed in the conference if the season ended today.
     
    Let’s take a look at the top five teams that would provide the biggest obstacle in the playoffs as the Clippers try to make their way to the finals to face LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

5. L.A. Lakers (20-13)

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    I know what you’re thinking—how can a team with Kobe Bryant and two of the league’s best big men in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol rank as low as No. 5 on this list?
     
    The answer: the rest of the team.
     
    Any coach will tell you that a deep bench is one of the most important factors in winning a championship. That happens to be the Lakers’ biggest weakness; they will find out how much they really miss Lamar Odom in the postseason.
     
    There are other concerns with this team. How will Kobe’s wrist hold up over a full season? Will Gasol trade rumors continue to affect the locker room? When will Metta World Peace break out of his season-long funk?
     
    As long as Kobe is on the floor, the Lakers are automatically a threat—but this year’s version of Showtime just doesn’t seem to have the same swagger to it as we’re used to seeing.

4. Denver Nuggets (18-17)

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    This ranking might seem generous for a team that’s just one game over .500, but something tells me the Denver Nuggets will be a very tough out in the playoffs.
     
    Denver has been the highest scoring team in the conference over the first half of the season (103.6 ppg). What’s most impressive about the offense is its tremendous balance—there are eight players who are averaging at least nine points per game, the result of terrific play from point guards Ty Lawson and Andre Miller.
     
    With leading scorer Danilo Gallinari set to return from injury after the break, I see George Karl gathering the troops to put together a big second half run and the Nuggets entering the postseason as one of the hottest teams in the league.
     
    Denver will need to tighten up on defense the rest of the way to make a serious run at the title, but catch this team in a seven game series at the wrong time and it might be over before you know what hit you. 
     

3. Oklahoma City Thunder (27-7)

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    All summer long and throughout this entire season, everyone seems to be saying it's a foregone conclusion that the Thunder will represent the West in the NBA Finals this year.
     
    I'm here to say—not so fast.
     
    After all, isn't this Oklahoma City team basically the same group of players that was eliminated by the Mavericks in the conference finals last year?
     
    That's not meant as a knock on the Thunder—it wouldn't surprise me one bit to see them win it all—but there are a few other very talented, deep teams that people are overlooking.
     
    There's no question that OKC has the offensive firepower (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden) and the interior toughness (Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka) to match up well with anyone in the league, but I'm a big believer in playoff experience in the NBA. Look at how long it took vets like Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to break through. Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd also had to pay their dues in the postseason before finally cashing in last year.
     
    Be patient, Thunder fans, your time will come soon enough. It might even be this year.
     

2. San Antonio Spurs (24-10)

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    It's amazing how a team this successful year after year is always so underrated and overlooked.
     
    Take this season for example. Even with Manu Ginobili missing most of the season with a broken bone in his hand, the Spurs have the second-best record in the conference heading into the break.
     
    That's thanks in large part to Tony Parker, who is having perhaps his finest season. Tim Duncan is still extremely efficient and Coach Popovich knows how to get the most out of his role players.

    The Spurs are a battle-tested playoff team that is out to avenge last year's first-round exit and I'm counting on a deep playoff run from the Spurs in 2012.

1. Dallas Mavericks (21-13)

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    Dallas started their title defense this year with a 1-4 start. Lamar Odom began his Mavericks career out of shape and Dirk Nowitzki had to miss four games with a sore knee.

    Everyone counted out the Mavericks just a week into the season. They should have known better.

    Never underestimate the heart of a champion.

    Dirk is back to being Dirk, Shawn Marion is still one of the best defensive stoppers in the league and Jason Terry is a terrific clutch scorer. Jason Kidd and Vince Carter also fill their roles extremely well. No doubt, the clock is ticking with this aging group, but for this season, the Mavericks are still the favorites to get the finals out of the West in my book.